Claressa Shields will wear her blue-streaked hair into the ring when she faces Christina Hammer in what is being billed as the most important women’s boxing match in history on April 13 in Atlantic City.
The choice of color is not a fashion statement or a sign of her political ideology.
It is simply one way she has chosen of insuring that a life-threatening issue that is highly personal to her is not forgotten by others. The blue hair, you see, symbolizes pure, clean water, something her hometown of Flint, Michigan has not enjoyed in nearly five years.
“As long as the water in Flint remains poisonous, I’ll wear my blue hair,’’ Shields said in a telephone conversation on Tuesday. “There’s really not much more I can do except to keep it before the media and the public.’’
The argument can be made that just by streaking her long black hair, Shields has already done more than the mayor of Flint, the governor of Michigan or the President of the United States to call attention to a problem that remains so dire local residents still cannot safely drink or shower in the water coming out of their faucets.
But the fight to restore clean water in Flint is only the latest seemingly unwinnable fight that Shields has taken on in her 23 years. By comparison, challenging the German-born Hammer, who is unbeaten in 24 pro fights, in only her ninth professional bout seems like a pretty safe proposition.
Already, Shields has experienced life on the treacherous streets of Flint without the aid of a father figure – her own father was in jail for seven years beginning from when she was two years old – and with a mother who was in and out of drug and alcohol rehab for much of Claressa’s early life.
As a teenager, she was the victim of repeated sexual abuse, she says by some of her mother’s boyfriends. She was raised for a time by her grandmother, but she died when Claressa was 14. At that point, she was forced to serve as the surrogate parent for her three siblings, an older brother and a younger brother and sister. And, for herself.
Then came the twin discoveries of boxing and religion, and a new life.
“I used to be mentally weak,’’ she said. “I used to cry a lot and be bothered by people’s words. But when I got involved in the church at 13, everything started to change for me.’’
She began to live by the words of scripture, Jeremiah 29:11 to be precise, in which God says, “For know I have plans for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’’
And she decided to devote her life to boxing, after hearing her father vent his regrets about the path his own life had taken, into prison rather than where he said his true passion lie, in the ring. The making of those two choices have resulted in a remarkable young woman with a radiant smile, and infectious laugh and a personality seemingly devoid of bitterness.
“I think the church and boxing helped me to control my anger,’’ she said. “I used to be mad all the time, mad about everything, mad about what had been done to me. I decided I wasn’t going to let my abusers win or use them as an excuse for why I failed. I’m not going to say I failed because this one abused me or that one raped me. I realized I have power the over him.’’
Shields’ singular self-discipline caused her to act as her own parent and trainer; at 15, she placed a curfew on her own hours, deciding her future lie in training, not carousing.
“When I was about 15, I was trying to figure out what kind of person I wanted to be,’’ she said. “My home life was in shambles. My mom was abusing alcohol and she kept having different boyfriends. She didn’t give me rules. She basically told me do what you want to do. So I didn’t really look up to anybody. I didn’t want to be like anybody else I knew.’’
She knew she liked to fight – “I’m a better street fighter than I am a boxer,’’ she said – and quickly found out she was good at it. Her subsequent association with Jason Crutchfield, a Flint-based boxing trainer, brought her to the next level.
“Jason was like a second father to me,’’ she said. “He always told me the truth and led me in the right direction.’’
Now, Claressa Shields is in the history books as the only U.S. boxer in history to have won gold medals in consecutive Olympics – London 2012 and Rio 2016 – and the only U.S boxer, male or female, to have won any gold medal since Andre Ward in 2014 in Athens. She has lost only one fight in her life, a decision in a 2012 amateur fight, out of 78 bouts.
Now, if she beats Hammer for the world middleweight title, there is a chance Universal Studios, which bought the option to her life story, will greenlight a film about her.
“On her broad shoulders,’’ said Mark Taffett, her manager, “Women’s boxing can be carried.’’
But even on the verge of breakthrough success, the essential truths about Shields have not changed, that she is a survivor and a caretaker and a source of great strength for her family and her community.
She had left Flint a few years ago to move to Florida, a concession to her training needs, but recently moved back to Davison, Mich., a suburb of Flint, to be close to her family, all of whom still live there. Despite their shortcomings in her upbringing, she has worked to forge a relationship with her parents. She has donated portions of her fight purses to the effort to replace the lead water pipes that continue to poison Flint, and has paid for bottled drinking water for its residents.
“You still can’t drink the water and you can’t wash with it,’’ she said. “They tell you if you take a shower, take it with cold water so it doesn’t open up your pores and let the lead inside your body. I think it shows the lack of caring people show for African-American areas. If this happened in L.A. or New York, it would have been taken care of by now. But when the majority of the people are African-American, they just don’t care.’’
Claressa Shields cares, a care that she expresses with the blue streaks in her hair and the almost religious intensity of her fighting style.
“I didn’t choose boxing, boxing chose me,’’ she says.
Whichever way it went down, it seems to be an association that has benefited both sides of the deal.